Sunday, October 28, 2018

Clue in the Ancient Disguise

If there is one word that you'll see used constantly on blogs on mystery fiction it's "GAD". These three letters are of course not an utterance of shock, but stand for Golden Age of Detection. Besides referring to an actual time of period which nobody seems to be able to agree upon exactly, GAD is often used to denote mystery novels of the type that flourished in the same-titled time period, that is to say, puzzle-plot oriented mystery plots that thrived on fair play and a game-like element between the author and the reader.

It is also a term I don't really like, which is why I seldom use it here.

To me, the use of "GAD" seems to strengthen a sense of nostalgia, a longing for times long lost, even though we're usually talking about a certain form, a certain mode in fiction, with its own sets of "rules", logic and tropes. And yes, this type of novel might've developed strongly in a particular period in time, but the puzzle plot mystery was also alive after that period (even if it had its ups and downs) and still going strongly in various spheres. "GAD" seems to me always to suggest a form that is of the past, that doesn't belong in the present anymore, even though there are plenty of fantastic mystery novels of the puzzle plot type written even now, many of them that can easily challenge the best of the Golden Age of Detection. When people say they're reading a GAD novel, I always wonder whether they read a certain mystery novel because it's a puzzle plot mystery (which would be my own main reason), or because it's from a certain period. It is a feeling I can never shake off, because the term "Golden Age of Detection" specifically refers to a period of time, and not to a form. So even when I discuss a novel from the Golden Age of Detection, I am far more likely to say it's a puzzle plot mystery or something in that spirit.

The Japanese terms honkaku, which means "orthodox" or "authentic" has its own sets of pros and cons of course, the major ones being that it doesn't tie the puzzle plot mystery to a period (pro), but inherently places a certain quality ("authentic") to this specific form of the mystery genre (con).

Anyway, everyone will use whatever word they want, but this did get me thinking: how hard would it be to do a mystery blog about specifically puzzle plot mysteries, without going back to the Golden Age of Detection, without discussing novels or stories published in that period? Or to go one step further, is it hard to mainly write reviews about puzzle plot mystery fiction that is published recently (let's say, the last twenty years)?  And then I remember that is kinda what I'm doing. So I went and checked the reviews I posted this year (2018) to see how much of what I discuss can be considered recent, and in what degree I have to rely on older material.

I only counted reviews of fiction for this (so no reviews of guidebooks or overview posts), and I gave "dated" mystery fiction an extreme advantage, because I decided that everything first published before the year 2000 would be "old". So that is not only real GAD novels, but also stuff released after that until as recently as the 90s! I also realized that I review a lot of detective fiction in the form "modern" media, from TV and films to especially comics and video games (which will skew things towards the new) so I decided to make sure to keep "novels" and "the rest" apart. The results were both expected, and surprising.

As of now, it seems like I reviewed 23 novels/short story collections published before 2000, and 21 novels/short story collections after 2000, which is really close and a deviation that is basically insignificant (I had two pre-2000 books the last two weeks; I have two post-2000 books scheduled for the coming weeks, so it's just normal deviation for this blog). Long-time readers will know that most of what I review are pretty orthodox puzzle plot mysteries, so at the very least, there's plenty of that coming out even after 2000 (Had I moved the cut-off line to 1990 or 80, things would've been skewed extremely towards "modern" by the way, making GAD just a minor blip on the radar here). But if we count in mystery fiction in other forms too, I end up with reviews for 27 works first published before 2000, and a whopping 52 works from after 2000. And at the moment, my list of best-reads of this year is also heavily skewed towards post-2000. Conclusion: yes, it'd be pretty easy to do a puzzle plot mystery-oriented blog even if you only review stuff from after 2000, especially if you don't stick with only novels.

I have the advantage of course as most of what I review comes from Japan, where pure puzzle plot mysteries specifically are doing better than in a lot of other countries, but still, it seems strange at times seeing so many focus on the term "GAD" and the period, while the form itself is still developing as we speak in fantastic ways, and in my eyes, it'd make more sense to focus on the broader form of the genre, rather than the history behind it.


  1. This is a very interesting post. Your new setup only takes a few words so I will post serially. The subject we are discussing is really the manner in which art forms 9like the mystery story)develop over time in different times and cultures. By now I think it is plain that any art form explores its total subject matter in a series of periods or steps as new techniques and subjects rise to dominance and then give way to the exploration of other parts of its subject matter. This division of a subject into phases is very noticeable especially in the history of painting, where different types of periods of painting are even given names like impressionism. The best book I know on this subject of the rise and fall of different sorts of arts and cultures is Alfred Kroeber's Configurations of Culture Growth.

    If we look at the mystery story, I think that, like painting, it can be divided into specific periods of the dominance of certain types of mystery story. I would divide it as follows:
    1. Beginning Period: This starts with Poe and continues until about 1890. The authors had some idea of what they wanted to do but no established rules. These authors were in fact inventing the conventions. Wilkie Collins and Emile Gaboriau and the sensation novelists are typical of this period.
    2. The Great Detective: This starts about 1890 with the success of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and continues until about 1910. Its most marked feature is the eccentric highly cerebral central detective as the main character, usually modeled on Holmes. There stories tend not to include the fair play element. After about 1910 these types of stories begin to tail off in production.
    3. First Interregnum: This lasts from about 1910 to 1920. The Great Detective as a subject has become exhausted as a dominant means of production and the authors are trying to find something new. The fair play concept had already been described by Zangwill in the introduction to The Big Bow Mystery (1892). The realistic fallible detective had been used by Bentley in Trent's Last Case (1913). The maps and diagrams had been pioneered in Adams' The Notting Hill Mystery (1863) and had been used by others thereafter. With these and other elements in solution, the art form finally precipitated into the next type.

  2. 4. Golden Age: I take it that this period lasted from about 1920 to about 1942. The most marked feature of this period is the fair play element, which had been observable earlier but which now became dominant. The detective character was important but not the dominant element he had been in the Great Detective period. I would pick 1920 simply because many of the most prominent authors of this type of story (Crofts, Christie, Bailey) began writing in this year.
    Note that it was a true Golden Age in that many different types of stories (spy story, private eye, police procedural, scientific detective)became fully developed in this period, they were just not the dominant mode of production. All the usual tropes (locked room, impossible crime, dying message) were fully explored in this period. It seems to me that we see a tailing off of the Golden Age fair play mystery after about 1942. Let us face it. After about 1942 the cerebral detective, clues, fair play, maps, diagrams, alibis all seem to disappear from the detective story. The pure puzzle plot is no longer the dominant mode of production. Almost all of the authors who had been prominent prior to 1942 either ceased regular production or stopped writing altogether. John Rhode and Agatha Christie continue to write the same sorts of mysteries they always had, but these were old-fashioned and no longer the dominant mode of production. Two authors do not make an age. Newer authors who had commenced writing in Golden Age style in the early 1940s (such as Charlotte Armstrong [Duff], Margaret Millar [Prye]) soon ceased to do so.

  3. 5. Second Interregnum: I date this from about 1942 to 1947. There is no dominant mode. We see a lot of wartime thrillers, women in peril (a lot of this for some reason) and so on but nary a map to be found. Even the pulps are in steep decline.
    6. Private Eye phase: From 1947 to about 1960. Although the hard-boiled private eye was well developed in the Golden Age, he did not become the dominant mode of production until Spillane's I, the Jury (1947). I think we can say that the bulk of detective fiction during this period featured the tropes of the hard-boiled PI. Hercule Poirot and his patent leather shoes just don't cut it any more with the men who had gotten through WW II.
    7. Spy novel: In the period from 1960 to 1970, it seems to me the spy novel was dominant. Even Spillane dropped Mike Hammer for spy Tiger Mann.
    8. Decadence: In the west, it seems to me that creativity in the detective story comes to an end. Everything after this is simply a repetition of old forms or a reversion to historical types. I was at a book store last week, and when I looked at the new mystery novels, almost all of them were set in earlier historical periods or were pastiches of earlier detectives.
    Even in Japan is there really anything new? Just how many locked rooms can we have? And in the West I don't see anything new at all, even though there is plenty of useful new material available for story adaptation.
    Going back to your initial problem of definition, therefore, of what Golden Age means, I think a lot of this situation simply arises from the loose use of terminology by fans. We are in this for fun, not writing doctoral theses. I think that "Golden Age" can either refer to the specific period of 1920 to 1942 when this art form reached full maturation or it can refer to the type of story (fair play, etc.) that was the dominant mode of production of that era.

    1. Thank you for your reply! I'm afraid I can't do much about the character limit Blogspot has for comments.

      Creativity is I think a broad subject, and even in modern puzzle plot mysteries, I think I see enough "creativity" to keep me hooked and to give me hope for further development of the puzzle plot mystery. You mention locked room specifically, but I'd see the *useful* and *original* use of modern technology in puzzle plot mysteries a form of creativity and you see that a plenty in Japanese mystery fiction (especially if you don't confine yourself to just books, but check out games and manga etc.), and I've seen plenty of concepts that wouldn't have been done in actual GAD novels (for example, because ideas build on post-modernism etc.).

      As for your last point, I still don't see the point or advantage in general to prefer GAD as a term to denote the type of story over simply puzzle plot or something like that :P

    2. I think GAD is an appropriate term because there is much more to GAD than the puzzle plot. First, the most prominent feature is that it is a fair play story. You can have a puzzle plot that is not fair play. Second, there is very often a closed circle of suspects and environment. Third, an important feature is that generally all of the necessary information needed to understand the story is already given. The focus of GAD is to accurately understand the NATURE of the clues rather than to hunt around for them. In your typical police procedural, for instance, the focus of the story is to FIND the clues and once you have them their significance tends to be obvious. But in GAD, the clues are generally in plain sight and the problem is to understand what they mean. Fourth, GAD has a very typical bag of tricks like locked room, dying message, alibi, country house, unusual settings and so on. Fifth, the focus is on the process of detection, much more than on the characters or even the detective. When you add them all together, you have something that is GAD and a distinctive art form and much more than a focus on the puzzle. I think that when someone states that a story is in GAD style, that the term is a useful shorthand.

  4. It does not surprise me that you can still find good modern material in Japan because Japan is set up to maximize creativity in popular culture. The foundation of Japanese popular culture is manga and lately light novels. The manga magazines practice strict quality control and as soon as creativity wears out in a feature or the manga loses popularity, the editors pull the plug on it. I was following Hayate the Combat Butler which lasted for 15 years, but as soon as the editors felt it was slipping, they gave the author six weeks to finish it (which made me quite angry). Japan runs what is effectively a huge midlist of authors; the system is highly decentralized in that each author/artist runs his own small studio and then sells work to the publisher. This decentralized setup allows for individual creativity on the part of the author, and since he owns his own work he has a great incentive for it to succeed.

    In the United States, on the other hand, they run everything into the ground as long as they can squeeze a penny from it. One of the reasons why, I think, is that all American publishing is conducted by a few very large corporations. These corporations are run by moneymen for the sole purpose of making money. They don't care about either author or quality; the whole mechanism is designed to maximize profits and push their politics. So instead of publishing a large midlist for a modest profit, all they want is the flashy and trashy bestseller.

    I think in Japan there is still an idea that the customer needs to be served; I can't find that here in the U.S. at all.

    I find that, as far as popular culture goes, all I read or watch is stuff from Japan (from all eras)or stuff from the West prior to 1970. So it does not surprise me that you still have a lot of good modern stuff to read. I am willing to bet that that would not be the case if your reading was confined to modern Western stuff.

    1. I wouldn't give too much credit to the Japanese system for comics. It's not "creativity" that rules most of the major magazines with serialization, it's "sales and user ratings." There's a reason why everyone in Shonen Jump *really* minds what pages they got in a given issue, and what the current reader polls are saying about them. Comics are still being published by mostly big publishers, and while you're right that most manga authors have more control about their own work, it's still a very business-oriented industry, even in Japan.

  5. As far as figuring out the dates of the various periods, that is always going to be a bit obscure. As in economics, first things move slowly and then quickly. An art form does not roll out of bed one day and decide to try something new. There are always both precursors of the main period and hangers-on after the main period. Also a lot depends on how you define your art form. Agatha Christie wrote until 1970, but she was just a hanger-on after the war; the main concerns of the field had shifted elsewhere, nor do I see that she had any important imitators thereafter. On the other hand, you couldn't throw a stone after the war and not hit a Mickey Spillane imitator.